Opinion | Integration à la Suisse

It has happened so often

Soon after their arrival in Austria, a refugee family makes a formal application for asylum and is assigned to a small town in the countryside through the Red Cross. The community embraces them, offering help both practical and personal – a place to live, translation, paperwork and language classes. A volunteer stops by regularly to help solve little problems, explain local customs, and offer friendship; there’s a good chance the older child can enter school in the fall.

When their application is finally approved some months later, the Red Cross coordinator and the volunteers join the refugees to celebrate at the local Gasthaus. So they are stunned when the father announces that the family will now be moving to Vienna. He imagines, often wrongly, there will be more opportunities there.

“This is a nationwide phenomenon,” writes Christina Pausackl in the Austrian monthly Datum. According to a study by the Gemeindebund (Association of Communities), barely a third choose to stay in the communities that have taken them in.  “As soon as their application for asylum is approved, they head for the cities.” Today, two out of three Austrian refugees live in Vienna.

In 2015, over 90,000 refugees filed asylum applications in Austria, of which 36,000 had been approved by year end – the vast majority (72%) from Syria, according to the Medien-Servicestelle für Neue Österreicherinnen (Media Service for New Austrians).

A year later, both hosts and refugees are discouraged. Integration has turned out to be a lot harder than expected. The refugees see few opportunities in rural towns, or at least few that make sense to them, and the locals feel their efforts have been wasted.

The process is never easy, and the more different the cultures, the harder it is. Certainly the French have had a terrible time, as have the Belgians, even the Germans and the easy-going Dutch. But there are some success stories.

Among the most successful are the Swiss – which may come as a surprise from people so orderly and reserved. But perhaps it’s because they are so clear in their expectations. And because many of the decisions are made at the local level.

In Switzerland, asylum approval is a federal matter, but it is the cantons which decide on naturalization for all immigrants, and it is they who are responsible for successful integration.  Local authorities issue the necessary documents, reviewed each year and only valid for that canton.  To live anywhere else would require a separate application, as does permission to travel abroad.

The cantons offer language courses, cultural integration, job training, internships, counseling and support. And free access to the labor market. It’s expensive, involved, and very local. A commitment –, by definition – for both sides.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of METROPOLE. Over a long career in journalism she has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler in New York, the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two US ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching for her work at the Department of Media Communications for Webster University Worldwide. In 2010, she was granted Austrian Citizenship of Honor (Ehrenstaatsbürgerschaft) for outstanding contributions to the Austrian Republic


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